Interior ‘propaganda’ video and tweets may violate ethics laws, experts say
A new video from the Interior Department praising President Trump’s efforts in office — and subsequent Twitter comments defending it — have raised questions from ethics experts who say the content veers closely toward propaganda.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tagged the president on Twitter while sharing a video that praises the “Trump administration conservation record.”
It ends with clips from a speech that Trump gave in his official capacity as president where he repeatedly attacked his opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Trump is seen in the video touting the importance of “preserving the awesome majesty of God’s great creation.”
“This is certainly coming right up to or crossing the line. If you had told me this was running as a TV spot in Michigan or Florida, I would assume it was a campaign ad,” Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert with the Campaign Legal Center, told The Hill by email.
“The proximity of dissemination to the election, the featuring of president/candidate Trump, especially his speech in a swing state, references to the ‘Trump administration’s’ record, as opposed to the Department of the Interior’s record—all those factors point to this being impermissible political activity,” she said, adding that “the prominent feature of the president, and the dissemination so close to the election, may push it over the line.”
Other ethics officials say while the video does not violate the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity while at work, it may violate a provision included in a 2019 appropriations package that bars government spending on propaganda.
“There’s no partisan political language or advocacy for or against a candidate,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Ethics in Washington (CREW) that would flag a Hatch Act violation.
“However, there is a prohibition—signed by President Trump—on using government funds for propaganda purposes. This video doesn’t seem to do anything to advance the department, only to make the president look good. It is part of a larger pattern of Interior making propaganda videos under Trump,” Libowitz continued.
Interior said its ethics office signed off on the video and Bernhardt’s tweet promoting it.
“The secretary’s video message and the secretary’s tweet were reviewed by the Departmental Ethics Office, and it was determined that it did not violate the prohibitions of the Hatch Act,” the agency said by email.
But perhaps just as problematic as the video itself are Interior’s tweets defending it after a former Obama administration employee took to Twitter with criticism.
“I ran the @interior digital team during President Obama’s re-election in 2012. I would have been fired for doing this,” Tim Fullerton wrote. “This is a propaganda video created with your tax dollars meant to bolster the President’s chances of being re-elected. This is way outside the lines.”
Fullerton’s comment generated swift backlash from the Interior press secretary Twitter account.
“Our tweets are approved by career ethics attorneys and thankfully no longer overseen by you. @Interior increased the number [of] ethics staff by 250% to remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration to invest in the ethics program,” the account replied.
It’s unclear what ethical lapses under the Obama administration Interior staffers behind the account may have been referring to.
But the tweet from the press office may have violated other laws.
Walter Shaub, the top ethics official under the Obama administration into the early days of the Trump administration, said the press secretary tweets violate laws that prohibit federal employees from using their position to “coerce” someone.
“This violates 5 CFR 2635.702. There’s an implicit corollary to the ban on misusing authority *for* someone. This is misuse of authority to smear someone solely because he criticized the govt. This could harm his career, and it contradicts the official record of his performance,” Shaub wrote.
“A federal department should not attack an individual citizen for questioning its use of taxpayer dollars to create campaign videos for the president,” he added.
The Department of the Interior did not comply with The Hill’s request to provide copies of the written ethics guidance for the video or those governing their tweets.
Instead it sent a statement defending its ethics office, “which is led by dedicated career public servants,” saying Interior bolstered it “by significantly increasing the number of staff and dedicating more resources to the ethics office to ensure Interior has an environment of ethical compliance.”
The Interior Department has repeatedly been under fire for potential ethics violations, most recently due the Park Service’s involvement in the Republican National Convention.
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